And you knew who you were then
Girls were girls and men were men. (All in the Family theme song)
Incels occasionally make the news. Largely when they’ve done something horrendous.
The emergence of the incel, however, should not surprise us. Appall us, yes. Surprise us, no.
The term “incel” is a portmanteau for “involuntary celibate.” Like Bennifer or Brangelina, but more creepy and dangerous. While the term originated in 1993, it has morphed — as these things do — from its original intent. In 1993, a Canadian student using the name Alana created an online project to discuss her sex life, and in particular her sexual inactivity. Four years later, she started a mailing list that was aimed at individuals of any gender who were lonely and wished for a relationship. When she handed operations over to someone else in 2000, she says it definitely was not a group of men blaming women for their problems (personal and societal). After 2000, however, that is exactly what it had become: men who blame women for the ills of society; men who blame women for their own (the men’s) personal problems, and men who blame women for their (the men’s) lack of sexual or romantic relationships.
The cat was out of the bag, and the concept spread across the internet, finding homes and advocates in a variety of settings. While numbers and demographics can be difficult to determine through online sources, estimates place the number of self-defined incels between 10,000 and 1,000,000. Who knows what the number might actually be?
Their very term for themselves says a lot about them. They define themselves in relation to their sexual status. They define themselves as desiring sexual activity, but unable to engage in it. They define themselves as passive, as not in control of their own situation. They define themselves as being at the mercy of women. Had they the option, they would be sexually active. And what’s keeping them from being sexually active? The vast conspiracy of powerful women who both owe them sex and simultaneously keep it from them. They pine for a society that they have lost, and that women have taken away from them. The sentiment is all-too-similar to “make America great again.” And they want to take it back.
But this particular view of women is far from new. In 15 BC, Cato the Sensor said, “If . . . every individual among us had made it a rule to maintain the prerogative and authority of a husband with respect to his own wife, we should have less trouble with the whole sex. But now, our privileges, overpowered at home by female contumacy, are, even here in the forum, spurned and trodden under foot; and because we are unable to withstand each separately, we now dread their collective body.” Cato was clearly bothered at the changes in society, and bothered that women were now exerting some influence outside the home. Roughly 400 years later, from Christendom, St. John of Chrysostom wrote, “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, a painted ill!” Again, women are both sexually desirable and a destructive force in society. The sentiment persists, as English art critic and social thinker John Ruskin said in 1865, “There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it.” Quite a staggering argument to lay all social injustice, and, indeed, every war onto women. And, yet, there it is — the sentiment that women are responsible for the social and personal ills of the world.
These same sentiments are also evident in the Father’s Manifesto, a document that circulated on the web in the mid-1990s (as of August 2019, the page has 16 million hits). It collected thousands of signatures. According to this manifesto, women, and feminists in particular, were the source of all social ills. They had corrupted the good of patriarchy in their demands for “equality.” They state that, unlike the “cancer” of feminism, patriarchy was created by God, and patriarchy has created “wealth, prosperity, and equality.” They demand the return of their children, homes, and property to them — following God’s law. As part and parcel of this, they mean that women should return to the status of property, as was the case in much of the US until the Married Women’s Property Acts (passed in New York State in 1848). And that meant women would be returned to the status of sexual property. Women owed men sex. It was — according to the signatories to the Manifesto — women’s fundamental and natural function. In the hierarchy of patriarchy, women are inferior to and are the property of men. The Manifesto was signed 1997, about the same time the incel movement was beginning.
So, nothing new here. We can trace a long, historical pathway of statements and sentiments that vilify women, and cast them as sexual objects. What is different now is the technology. Whereas an individual 100 years ago may have felt like an “involuntary celibate,” he had few means to connect with others who shared those sentiments. What was he to do with those feelings? Let them stew? Write a pamphlet? Now, of course, the incel can live within an echo chamber. Tens of thousands of incels can meet online, exchange views, and share outrage. They can have their own view of women and the world reinforced by other incels.
The internet can have that effect on any group. Yankees or Packers fans. Harry Potter or Matrix fans. Fans of punk rock or ska. Parents of twins or of children with disabilities. They can all exist in an echo chamber. The difference is that none of these groups advocates violence. None of them drives a van on a sidewalk and mows people down.
In addition to the technology, the current social and political climate, I would suggest, exacerbates the situation and emboldens the incels. They are part and parcel of the global rise of conservatism and populism. They walk in lock step with those who want to return to some imagined idyllic past. For one, the imagined past is always a fiction. For another, even the imagined past was never good for everyone. It was good for the few white, landed men who controlled politics, religion, and much of culture. Returning to it is not an option.
What we need to continue to imagine is a future, a future that includes those who have been left out historically. What we need to do is to raise a generation of individuals who recognize those around them as equals — not as property, not as a right, not as a servant. What we need is to continue to progress, beyond the antiquated attitudes about women. What we need to do — despite the claims of incels and the Father’s Manifesto — is to work toward a more egalitarian society. Not backward. Not “making American great again,” but making our society great for all, for once.
As noted feminist, suffragist, and pacifist Inez Milholland wrote in 1911,:
Forward, out of error,
Leave behind the night,
Forward through the darkness,
Forward into light!
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.